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Don’t Be a Lazy Listener

June 21, 2012

It’s easy to treat a sermon like a spectator sport. We actively participate in the singing or the Lord’s Table, maybe less so in the prayers as our minds tend to wander, and then kick into cruise control when the preacher steps into the pulpit. But if we’re gathered to hear God’s Word, not just the preacher’s words, then shouldn’t listening to a sermon ask something of the listener as well?

Consider Richard Baxter’s comments on “Directions for Profitably Hearing the Word Preached”:

Come not to hear with a careless heart, as if you were to hear a matter that little concerned you, but come with a sense of the unspeakable weight, necessity, and consequence of the holy word which you are to hear; . . .

Make it your work with diligence to apply the word as you are hearing it. . . . You have work to do as well as the preacher, and should all the time be as busy as he . . . you must open your mouths, and digest it, for another cannot digest it for you . . . therefore be all the while at work, and abhor an idle heart in hearing, as well as an idle minister.

Chew the cud, and call up all when you come home in secret, and by meditation preach it over to yourselves. If it were coldly delivered by the preacher, do you . . . preach it more earnestly over to your own hearts. . . .

–Cited in J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 254.

In that spirit, here are six practical tips for listening profitably to a sermon:

  1. Read the passage ahead of time. Set aside time Saturday night or Sunday morning to read through the passage that will be preached on. Then read it a second time. Think about what it’s saying and why. Consider doing this as a family, helping your children prepare for worship and be able to follow the sermon better as they become familiar with the words, ideas, and/or story of the passage.
  2. Listen with a Bible in hand. With PowerPoint and handheld devices, it’s easy to lose the habit of following the sermon along with an open Bible. There are three reasons you should listen with a Bible in hand: (1) It’s God’s Word, not your preacher’s words, that carry the message and authority. The Bible is both the source and the standard for whatever the preacher is saying, so we should listen with a special awareness of that standard (cf. Acts. 17:11). (2) A good sermon should not only teach you what the Bible says and how to apply it, it should teach you how to read the Bible as well. Following along with the preacher as he draws attention to words, structure, and ideas helps you do the same in your own reading outside the Sunday service. (3) As convenient as screens are, they are inherently limiting to our understanding, because they only display a small portion of the text at a time. It’s easy to lose awareness that the passage being discussed is part of a larger whole, and that its message is shaped by the larger flow of thought throughout the book. Listening with an open Bible helps the listener take in the context of a passage–how it fits into the flow of the book and relates to other ideas surround it.
  3. Consider taking notes. There’s nothing sacred about this, but for some types of learners, taking notes or jotting down ideas helps us focus, process, and remember what we’re hearing. Truth be told, I’m not sure I’ve ever gone back to review the notes I’ve taken during a sermon. But I know I remember better when I write it down than when I just sit and listen. For younger children, it can be helpful to encourage them to draw a picture of the story or ideas that they’re hearing. And by the way, if your child asks a question mid-sermon, there’s nothing wrong with having a quiet conversation to help them understand. I’d rather preach amid a room full of thoughtful whispers than blank faces.
  4. Pray while you listen. Listening to a sermon is a spiritual activity, just as is reading our Bibles personally. Ask God to help you focus and understand, but don’t stop there. Ask him to change your heart according to the truth of the gospel that is on display in that passage.
  5. Write down your questions. Often times a passage or a sermon will raise questions for us that the preacher doesn’t have a chance to address. Sometimes it’s simply because the preacher wasn’t clear about something (shocking, I know; but it happens), and sometimes something we read or hear simply sparks a question. Write these down so you can take time to study them or discuss them later.
  6. Talk about the sermon afterward. Reviewing the sermon with family or friends afterward is also a helpful way to process and apply what we’ve heard. Some families make a habit of discussing the sermon over Sunday dinner. Some people find it helpful to go back and listen to the sermon again (and happily many churches make their sermon audio available online, and sometimes even with notes). Some churches encourage their small groups to spend time going back over the passage that was preached (or to prepare for the one that is ahead). Whatever shape it takes, God has given his Word to his people, and understanding and obeying it is something best done in the context of community.

See also Christopher Ash, Listen Up! A Practical Guide to Listening to Sermons (The Good Book Company, 2009).

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